A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution

David Pestieau and Herwig Lerouge

In 1917, a hundred years ago, two revolutions took place in Russia: one in February and the other in October. The first led to the abdication of the tsar, Russia’s absolute monarch, to a separation of the Church and the State and to universal suffrage. The second, carried out by the people to the slogan of “Bread, Peace and Land”, brought the seizing of power by the Communists (called the Bolsheviks).

Lenin’s speech of March 20, 1920, on the Bolshoi Theater Square in Moscow.

Days that shook the world

In 1917, a hundred years ago, two revolutions took place in Russia: one in February and the other in October. The first led to the abdication of the tsar, Russia’s absolute monarch, to a separation of the Church and the State and to universal suffrage. The second, carried out by the people to the slogan of “Bread, Peace and Land”, brought the seizing of power by the Communists (called the Bolsheviks). It was driven by the desire to overthrow the established, capitalist order — which, in a still largely feudal Russia, proved incapable of lifting the population out of poverty and war —, and by the goal of building a different society. It was the beginning of the first attempt in the world at creating socialism, with a series of achievements but also with serious mistakes, which was to mark the history of the 20th century. In what context did this revolution take place? Was it a Russian or international phenomenon? How did it proceed? What influence has it had on us and the rest of the world? We offer an overview of this process that shook the world to its very foundations.

A murderous world war leads to an international wave of revolts

In order to understand the October 1917 revolution, it is essential to look at its international context, the First World War, launched in 1914, the profound crisis it caused throughout Europe and the succession of revolts and revolutions that took place all over the European continent, leading to the end of the war.

In August 1914, the war began as a gigantic confrontation between two blocs: on one side, that of the British Empire, France and Russian Tsarism; on the other, the Kaiser’s Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

Before 1914, according to the socialists of the time, assembled in the Second International, the brewing world war was fueled by rival major powers in order to control world markets. All socialists rejected war and said they would never vote for the appropriations to fund it.

Some only went as far as saying that one should not participate in it, that peace ought to be the option defended. This was the case with the German, Belgian, French, British Socialists and with a minority of the Russian Socialists, called Mensheviks.

Another group of the Russian Socialists, the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Lenin, went further. According to them, the only way to end the world war was to prepare for the overthrow of the capitalist system, which instigated such wars. If war broke out, they claimed, it was necessary to call on soldiers and workers to turn their arms against their own governments and not against the workers of other countries, presented to be “enemy countries”.

But when war broke out in 1914, the overwhelming majority of socialist leaders nevertheless voted for the war budgets and called on workers to join their governments’ side against workers of enemy countries. The war was only opposed by Lenin’s party — the Bolsheviks — and by minority currents in the other parties.

Three years later, predictions of a rapid end to this war prove faulty. After tens of millions of casualties in the slaughter of the trenches, the people of the belligerent countries wish to put an end to the carnage and famine caused by the war. But their determination runs up against the refusal of the political leaders of the time. Worse, the war has bogged down and the absence of breakthroughs leads generals to redouble their violence, barbarity and brutality in the hope of a victory.

Among French troops, the 200,000 deaths tallied during the Second Battle of the Aisne in the spring of 1917, combined with the appalling conditions of life in the cold and the mud, provoke mutinies all along the front.

Many soldiers self-mutilate in order to leave the front lines. Some refuse to participate in new attacks. The most common slogan becomes “Down with War”. As for civilians, they too are uprising because of hunger and various other kinds of deprivation.

Similar movements are developing among other European armies, including the German army, where soldiers say: “We are not fighting for our country; we are not fighting for God. We fight for the rich, while the poor are being slaughtered.” Everywhere, the downtrodden are at their wit’s end, while leaders no longer see a way out of the quagmire.

An international revolutionary wave

This unleashing of violence leads to a questioning of the union between the Establishment and large sections of the population in the warring countries.
In 1917, given the refusal or incapacity of the ruling parties to end the massacres, a revolutionary movement arises among the soldiers at the front, the trade unions and the leftist parties in several countries. And it is this revolutionary pressure that will put an end to the war.

The wave begins in Great Britain, with a wildcat strike of Clyde plant workers (near Glasgow, Scotland) and then one in Liverpool.

Italy sees the birth of many social and political movements; in Russia, Petrograd workers go on strike in 1916 (a prelude to the revolutions of 1917); the strikes gain ground by contagion in April 1917 in Germany, and in May 1917 in France.

On October 30, 1918, in Kiel, Germany, after a mutiny in the war fleet, agitation spreads like wildfire. On November 8, workers’ councils appear in all major German cities. On November 9, Berlin is swept by the growing revolution, and Kaiser Wilhelm abdicates power. Social democrat Friedrich Ebert forms the new government, but he instructs Army authorities to fight “Bolshevism”. A decision is taken to sign the armistice of November 11, 1918, in order to defuse the growing movement. In the meantime, a revolutionary action committee has been set up to create a Soviet republic in Germany. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg lead the insurgency. The social-democratic government then hires a “Freikorps”, a counter-revolutionary paramilitary militia, to nip the revolution in the bud, killing hundreds of people, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

In 1919 and 1920, Italy is shaken by a real revolutionary crisis. Social agitation is especially prevalent in the countryside. In many companies factory councils emerge, similar to the Russian soviets. This movement does not succeed, but the bourgeoisie takes fright and decides to finance the fascists, thus paving the way for the taking of power by Mussolini two years later.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is also a substantial strike movement that leads to the abdication of Emperor Charles I. Subsequently, from March 21 to August 6, 1919, Hungary has a Soviet republic, led by the Communist Bela Kun. But this development is crushed in a bloodbath by reactionary forces. So it is in a context of revolts and revolutions throughout the continent that the October revolution takes place in Russia.

February 1917 | The February revolution brings down Tsarism

In Russia, Tsarism was a feudal, medieval, absolute power system, reigning over a population that was essentially an illiterate peasantry. From early 1917, the carnage of war added its weight to the most appalling social misery.

At the beginning of the century, Russian peasants lived under conditions similar to those of the Belgian or French peasants of the 14th century. Under Tsarism, an absolute monarchy vested in Nicholas II, the ruling class was the landed nobility: 30,000 landowners owned as much land as 10 million peasant families. Several hundred peasant revolts had already erupted since the beginning of the 20th century. The police and the tsar’s army crushed these uprisings ruthlessly, and the working class was exploited with ferocity.

But the social situation in Russia grows even worse with the war; 2.5 million Russians die. From 1916 onwards, mutinies break out, and one million soldiers desert. Behind the front, strikes are breaking out.

In February 1917, in Petrograd (now St Petersburg, and the capital of Russia at the time), a movement arises at the Putilov armament factory (the largest company in the city). Devoid of supplies, it is forced to close. Thousands of workers become technically unemployed and find themselves in the streets. On February 23 according to the Julian calendar (March 8, according to ours1), there are several demonstrations of women demanding bread, exasperated at having to queue in front of bakeries.

Economic demands —“Bread, work!”—trigger a protest movement which, at the outset, is not revolutionary. But the next day, the protest movement spreads. The demonstrators arm themselves by plundering police stations. On February 25, 1917, the strike has become general. The slogans being taken up are increasingly radical: “Down with the War!”, “Down with Autocracy!” Confrontations with law enforcement forces cause deaths and injuries on both sides. On February 26, the crowd surges throughout the city. Towards noon, the Junkers (student officers) open fire, murdering 150 people. The tsar proclaims a state of siege, but on the night of February 26–27, elite regiments, traumatized at having fired on their “brothers”, workers like themselves, revolt openly. On March 3, 1917, the old Russian regime collapses like a house of cards. It is the end of the reign of the tsars.

February 1917-October 1917 | The dual power: the soviets and the provisional government

The period beginning in February 1917 is characterized by a dual power: that of the soviets (Russian word for “councils”) on the one hand, and the provisional government, on the other.

The soviets are assemblies of workers, peasants, soldiers and inhabitants who make decisions directly. They were set up during the first Russian Revolution, that of 1905 (which failed). In the soviets, the popular classes meet for discussions, but also to self-manage part of their community. The soviet is the organized expression of the distrust of workers, peasants and soldiers towards all who had been oppressing them.

The Petrograd Soviet, with representatives elected by workers and garrison soldiers, act rapidly as a governmental power. It decides to occupy rapidly the Empire Bank, the Treasury, the Mint and the money printing services. The workers, the soldiers and soon also the peasants will henceforth only address the soviet, the very incarnation of the revolution.

The workers elect socialists, that is to say, those who were not only opposed to the monarchy, but also, in words at least, to the bourgeoisie. They make almost no distinction between the three so-called socialist parties: the Social-Revolutionaries (especially influential amongst the peasantry), the Mensheviks (Social Democrats) and the Bolsheviks. At first, the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries hold a clear preponderance.

But the old institutions still exist: the parliament (the Duma), subservient to the tsar, the municipal councils... These traditional bodies are dominated by the parties of the bourgeoisie and the richest peasants. At the same time, and with the creation of the Petrograd Soviet, a provisional government is formed around Prince Lvov, a member of the Democratic Constitutional Party (the Cadets), the main party of the bourgeoisie. The Social-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks decide to be part of it too. The government maintains participation in the war, does not launch an agrarian reform... Many of these socialists thus justify the continuation of the war “in the name of the revolution”. From the beginning, Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, denounces this orientation.

There is therefore a situation of dual power, even if the Petrograd Soviet, chaired by a Menshevik social democrat, supports the provisional government pending the convening of a Constituent Assembly.

Lenin sees the soviets as the central instrument of the revolution. He promotes the slogan: “All power to the soviets!” According to him, the power of the workers is not represented by the provisional government, but by the power of the soviets. For him, the main objective of the revolution is to transfer the power of the provisional government to the soviets.

The broken promises of the provisional government

The provisional government eschews taking any overtly radical measure, not even proclaiming the Republic. It rejects the demands of the soviets, such as ending the war, distributing to peasants the estates of large landowners, instituting the eight-hour workday... It refers these questions to a future Constituent Assembly, while claiming that it cannot summon it as long as millions of voters are on the military front.

But the unpopularity of the war and of the provisional government pushes more and more workers towards the Bolsheviks. At the beginning of June, they form the majority of the Petrograd workers’ soviet. The army is falling apart, soldiers refuse to travel to the front lines, desertions are rife. Soldiers and workers demonstrate, demanding that the city soviet leaders take power.

The Bolsheviks support the demonstrators. The government ressorts to repression, particularly hitting the Bolshevik Party, accused of being in the pay of Germany. The regiments who supported the revolution are sent to the front in small detachments, the workers are disarmed. The death penalty, abolished in February, is re-established.
The government is in crisis. Some ministers and tsarist forces believe the time has come to restore the tsarist order.

On September 9, Kornilov, the pro-tsarist chief of staff, appointed by Social Democratic Prime Minister Kerensky, is preparing to crush the soviets and workers’ organizations. Kerensky is unable to prevent him from doing so, but it is the soviets that inflict on Kornilov a major defeat, reversing the situation. The Bolsheviks are at the forefront of the opposition to Kornilov, and they emerge strengthened from these struggles, becoming the majority in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets.

Bread, land, peace: the aspirations of October 1917

In autumn 1917, the countryside joins the uprising. Peasants seize the estates of large landowners. Learning that the land is being distributed, the soldiers, mainly of peasant origin, desert en masse in order to return in time to share in this redistribution. It is then that the workers of Petrograd decide that, if they wish to end the war, turn the land over to the peasants and obtain the eight-hour workday, the Kerensky government has to be overthrown. Thus begins the October Revolution.

On the night of October 24 to 25, 1917, detachments of soldiers leave their barracks. Armed workers leave the factories. They walk to the nerve centers of the city: bridges, railway stations, the central bank, postal and telephone centers.

They encounter only weak resistance. Apart from a few battalions of student officers, no troops in the capital support Kerensky’s provisional government.

This insurrection has been well prepared by the Bolshevik Party. On October 10, the leadership of the party has come to the conclusion that the national and international situation was about to change drastically. Insurrection had broken out in the German fleet, and, throughout Europe, revolutionary movements were starting up against the war. In Russia, there was a real danger that the government in place would capitulate and surrender Petrograd to the Germans. In the Russian hinterland, the peasants were arising en masse, and workers and peasants alike were joining the Bolsheviks. The tsarist Right was preparing an offensive to regain power, as it had already tried to do with tsarist General Kornilov.

The Power of the State is Transferred to the Soviets

The Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets meets on the evening of October 25, with the Bolsheviks now holding a large majority. In thirty-three hours, steps are taken which the provisional government had not adopted in eight months. On the night of October 26, the Congress of the Soviets adopts the Decree on Peace. It calls on the belligerent countries to conclude an armistice of at least three months in order to start peace talks (this armistice will finally be signed in March 2018 with Germany).
On the same night, it passes a Decree on Land stating that it should belong to those who cultivate it, and that “landed proprietorship is abolished forthwith without any compensation”. All subsoil wealth (oil, coal, minerals...), forests and waters become property of the people. Another decree institutes the workers’ control of the factories and the eight-hour workday. The Congress of Soviets creates a government: the Council of People’s Commissars (ministers). Lenin becomes its president.
From October 1917 to February 1918, the revolution spreads to the entire country. At the same time, many other reforms are launched: the cancellation of the Russian public debt and the nationalization of banks and of major industries; the end of all discrimination on the basis of national origin and the right to self-determination of the nations composing the Russian Empire2; the full equality of rights for women and the affirmation of wage equality, the legalization of abortion in 1920, and proactive measures to foster literacy, promote education and eliminate university fees.

A Terrible Civil War

But from the very first day of its existence, the young Soviet Union (the name given to the country after the revolution) is confronted with interventionism, an economic blockade, and political and military encirclement. The former tsarist forces, supported by the Western powers, try to overthrow it. In 1918, the British, French, Japanese, Italian and American armies disembark and support the Tsarist troops operating throughout the territory. From 1918 to 1921, this civil war will cause millions of casualties, mainly victims of famine due to foreign military interventions and to the blockade organized by the Western powers.

The Prime Minister who was “terrified of a similar revolution in Belgium”

“At the end of 1920, the conservative Catholic Prime Minister Henri Carton de Wiart was terrified at the idea that Belgium might experience a revolution similar to the Bolshevik model,” writes the historian and journalist Marc Reynebeau. Following the October Revolution in Russia, social and political reforms are rapidly introduced throughout Europe. The fear of revolutionary contagion grips the Establishment at the time, as exemplified by Carton de Wiart. If the labor movement was able to wrest social rights, it owed it to its own hard and heroic struggles, but also to the existence of the Soviet Union.

In the Soviet Union, during the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution, a social welfare system is built that will inspire many labor movement activists throughout the world. As early as October 30, 1917, the Soviet Union introduces comprehensive social protection, including coverage for temporary work disability (sickness and accident), medical assistance, maternity leave (for an extended period), unemployment, permanent disability... Workers who are injured or become ill have their jobs and wages guaranteed. These principles constitute a general framework for the protection of labor that is unique in the world at the time. It is these principles that will form the core of the demands of the workers’ movement in Western countries during the following decades. If today, by fundamental rights, we also mean economic and social rights, that is to say, the right to health, the right to education, etc., it is also a result of 1917. Economist Friedrich Hayek, the main instigator of Reagan and Thatcher’s neoliberal policies, will even write: “Economic and social rights are the ruinous invention of the Marxist revolution.”

In Belgium, it took a general strike in 1919, but above all the fear of revolutionary contagion, for the 8-hour day and the 48-hour week to be introduced in 1921. The same was true of universal suffrage, which was granted (only to males) in 1919 (after three general strikes in 1893, 1902 and 1913). It was also the Russian Revolution that established for the first time the principle that women must have access to political rights. In Belgium, women will need to wait until 1948 to win voting rights.

Colonial Emancipation

The October Revolution will also inspire the struggle for national liberation and against racial discrimination. At the time, the whole planet is the private property of the great imperial and imperialist powers. Lenin then calls for “the struggle against the oppression of dependent nations and colonies, as well as the recognition of their right to secede”. Soviet Russia reveals to the world the secret treaties passed between colonial powers, such as the Sykes-Picot treaty in the Middle East. The support it will subsequently give to the anti-colonial movement will be a major element in the development of national liberation movements in the Third World.

In the United States, Blacks are unable to vote. But in 1952, the US Justice Minister writes to the Supreme Court: “You must absolutely declare the unconstitutionality of laws that establish segregation against Blacks, otherwise it will benefit the Soviet Union and the Communist movement in the Third World and in the colonial world.”

Original article published in the monthly Solidaire magazine of July 2017